In recent years, the urgency around sustainable practices has surged to the forefront of global discourse, prompting industries to reevaluate their environmental impact.

The packaging sector finds itself at a critical juncture. With consumer awareness at an all-time high and regulatory pressures mounting, the demand for sustainable packaging solutions has never been more pressing. Despite the collective push for greener alternatives, the path to achieving sustainability in packaging—spanning materials like paper, plastics, metal, and glass—remains fraught with challenges.

The insights from multiple Strategex Voice of the Customer studies in 2022 and 2023 involving B2B participants working in various consumer-packaging segments underscored participants’ determination to address key sustainability issues. At the same time, it also highlighted the complex reality that even the most forward-thinking suppliers face in navigating the transition towards sustainable packaging practices. The studies point to a critical combination of innovation, collaboration, and regulatory guidance that will enable a sustainable future in consumer packaging.

We interviewed 650 participants from different market segments and divergent regions to weigh in on the most important issues they were working to address in sustainability. It was clear that consumer-products packaging professionals responsible for sustainability are focused on three key issues which they want their key suppliers to address. The lack of a clear roadmap for suppliers to develop and implement sustainable solutions underscores a significant gap between ambition and practical, scalable action.

The Top Three Initiatives

  1. Carbon emissions’ reduction or carbon neutrality, mentioned by 32% of participants
  2. Circular recyclability of materials mentioned by 24% of participants
  3. Right-weighting/light-weighting, mentioned by 23% of participants

Throughout the interviews, participants shared their corporate mantras – “reduce, reuse, and recycle” and “less plastic, better plastic, and no plastic.” However, without solutions in place these mantras might feel like empty platitudes.

“We have to find a way to address sustainability soon, so we’ll be able to align with global and government initiatives. There will be a tax on every component used in production that’s non-compliant,” said one participant.

Regulation plays a pivotal role in driving sustainability within the packaging industry, serving both as a catalyst for innovation and a framework within which companies must operate. Regulatory measures can range from bans on certain materials (such as single-use plastics) to requirements for using a certain percentage of recycled content in packaging. These regulations are designed to reduce waste, encourage recycling, and minimize the environmental footprint of packaging materials. In fact, the “holy grail” of less plastic is now solidified by the 2022 Unite Nations Environment Asembly resolution, which aligns with the Ocean Protection Council's objective to cut global plastic pollution by 80% by the year 2040.

The burden of true sustainability will rest with supply chain management.

Sustainability remains at the center of many companies’ strategic vision…yet, practical solutions have yet to catch up with that goal. For example, many consumer-packaged goods incorporate a variety of materials including plastic, metal, nylon, film, and sometimes glass, creating a complex blend that complicates the recycling process. Adding to the complexities are the elements that make consumer packaging so appealing in the first place: brightly colored packaging as well as metallic or foil decals. While consumers "talk" a lot about the importance of recycling, when coupled with most consumers’ lack of willingness to prepare a spent-product package for true recycling, it becomes evident that the burden of real sustainability will rest with supply chain management.

A promising solution is the development of mono-material packaging, which our research and development interviewees have described as "exceedingly difficult" to achieve. Mono-material refers to packaging made entirely from one type of material or fiber, aiming to simplify recycling. However, finding a single material capable of replicating the distinct functional qualities of metal, plastic, and nylon in a unified packaging solution remains a significant challenge, largely due to the unique performance characteristics each material offers.

Packaging manufacturers and their supply chains and value streams must deal with mounting consumer and regulatory pressure regarding the "P-Word," or PFAs. But the availability of alternatives remains elusive: PFAs are cost-effective and provide unmatched water and oil resistance properties. Some manufacturers look to transition to new materials (a large capital expense); however, some of the alternatives marketed as "safer" have a similar environmental impact yet none of the public scrutiny. Recent promising developments involve AI-enabled science to seek solutions (bacteria, proteins) to break down PFAs. The transition away from PFAs must happen quickly as international, national, and local regulations accelerate.

Participants anxiously mentioned targeted timeframes of 2025, 2030, and 2040 which are a blink in time in today’s fast-paced world. Packaging companies must overcome the challenge of aligning environmental objectives with practical, scalable innovation—a crucial step forward in the effort to mitigate pollution and protect our planet for future generations. “We have to find a way to address sustainability soon, so we’ll be able to align with global and government initiatives. There will be a tax on every component used in production that’s non-compliant,” said one participant.

As we navigate the complexities of sustainability in packaging, one study participant's words "Cutting our reliance on plastic, as well as reducing our carbon emission output is definitely at the top of our sustainability action plan" resonate deeply, encapsulating the industry's vision for transformative change. However, without solutions, the vision will remain a vision, and not an actuality.